Luton advance in playoffs, earn shot at playing in Premier League for first time

Luton advance in playoffs, earn shot at playing in Premier League for first time
A Luton Town fan celebrates during a pitch invasion after the Championship playoff semifinal match between Luton and Sunderland on Tuesday. (Reuters)
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Updated 17 May 2023
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Luton advance in playoffs, earn shot at playing in Premier League for first time

Luton advance in playoffs, earn shot at playing in Premier League for first time
  • Luton beat Sunderland 2-0 to clinch a 3-2 win on aggregate and a place in the Championship playoff final
  • The final will be played at Wembley on May 27, with Middlesbrough and Coventry vying to be Luton’s opponent

LONDON: Luton are heading to Wembley Stadium for a shot at playing in the Premier League for the first time.

Luton beat Sunderland 2-0 on Tuesday to clinch a 3-2 win on aggregate and a place in the Championship playoff final, often labeled the world’s most lucrative one-off soccer game because of guaranteed future earnings for the winning team.

The final will be played at Wembley on May 27, with Middlesbrough and Coventry vying to be Luton’s opponent. The second leg of their playoff semifinal takes place on Wednesday, with the teams locked at 0-0.

Luton, a club located just north of London, was last in England’s top division in 1991-92 — the season before it was rebranded as the Premier League. The team have since dropped as low as English soccer’s fifth tier and was playing at that level as recently as 2014.

Luton finished third in the Championship’s regular season behind champion Burnley and Sheffield United, who both earned automatic promotion.

Sunderland weres sixth and seeking a return to the Premier League after a six-year absence, during which time the northeast club has been the subject of a Netflix documentary.


Immobile fires Lazio past Celtic and to brink of Champions League knockouts

Immobile fires Lazio past Celtic and to brink of Champions League knockouts
Updated 28 November 2023
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Immobile fires Lazio past Celtic and to brink of Champions League knockouts

Immobile fires Lazio past Celtic and to brink of Champions League knockouts
  • Italy forward Immobile struck twice in the final 10 minutes at the Stadio Olimpico in Rome
  • Immobile’s double was a rare high point for Lazio who are 11th in Serie A

ROME: Ciro Immobile shot Lazio to the verge of qualification for the last 16 of the Champions League with a late brace in Tuesday’s 2-0 win over eliminated Celtic.
Italy forward Immobile struck twice in the final 10 minutes at the Stadio Olimpico in Rome to move Lazio top of Group E, two points ahead of Atletico Madrid who are at third-placed Feyenoord later on Tuesday.
Lazio will be through to the next round if Feyenoord lose to their Spanish opposition as the Dutch outfit are four points behind the new group leaders.
Immobile’s double, which took his all-competitions tally for the season to seven, was a rare high point for Lazio who are 11th in Serie A.
“When a team goes through a difficult period, your personal situation should take second place,” assured Immobile.
“When I was on the bench, I just tried to see how I could help my team. We now need to find in the league the enthusiasm that we show in the Champions League.”
Defeat in the Italian capital confirmed Celtic’s exit from Europe’s top club competition.
Brendan Rodgers’ side will finish bottom of Group E following the defeat which left the Scottish champions with a single point from their five group matches.
Veteran striker Immobile broke the deadlock of a tense match in the 82nd minute when Gustav Isaksen’s shot was deflected right into his path with only befuddled goalkeeper Joe Hart to beat.
And the 33-year-old made sure of the points three minutes later, taking down Isaksen’s pass and shrugging off the Celtic defense before rolling home a neat finish.
Any hope of a Celtic comeback was finished once referee Halil Umut Meler denied their appeal for a stoppage-time penalty following a review of the pitch-side monitor.


Al-Dawsari scores wonder goal as Al-Hilal seal Asian Champions League knockout spot

Al-Dawsari scores wonder goal as Al-Hilal seal Asian Champions League knockout spot
Updated 28 November 2023
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Al-Dawsari scores wonder goal as Al-Hilal seal Asian Champions League knockout spot

Al-Dawsari scores wonder goal as Al-Hilal seal Asian Champions League knockout spot
  • Al-Dawsari atoned with some distinction for the four-time champions late on
  • The 2-0 win was enough to take Al-Hilal, runners-up last season, through to the last 16 as group winners, with one game to spare

ABU DHABI: Asian Player of the Year Salem Al-Dawsari missed two penalties but scored a wonder goal as Al-Hilal sealed a spot in the Asian Champions League knockout stages on Tuesday night.
The Saudi Arabian winger, who was last month named the continent’s best men’s player, spurned a spot-kick in either half in the Group D tie against Navbahor in Uzbekistan.
However, he was not made to pay as substitute Malcolm struck the game’s opening goal, and Al-Dawsari atoned with some distinction for the four-time champions late on.
Malcolm’s effort, a rebound from Al-Dawsari’s second saved penalty on 68 minutes, marked the Brazilian’s first touch of the match. The goal was also his first in the competition since a summer move from Zenit Saint Petersburg.
With four minutes remaining, Al-Dawsari then made safe the result lobbing Navbahor goalkeeper Utkir Yusupov from around 35 yards. Navbahor’s Ibrokhim Yuldoshev was sent off late on for a second bookable offense.
The 2-0 win was enough to take Al-Hilal, runners-up last season, through to the last 16 as group winners, with one game to spare.
Navbahor, though, are still well placed to advance also, with Iran’s Nassaji Mazandaran and Indian’s Mumbai City already eliminated. Nassaji defeated the Champions League debutants 2-0 on Tuesday to confine Mumbai to a fifth successive loss.
In Group A, UAE’s Al Ain suffered their first defeat of this continental campaign when they lost 3-1 at home to Pakhtakor of Uzbekistan. The result mattered little to the 2003 champions, though, since Al Ain had already secured their place in the last 16.
In the group’s other fixture, Saudi Arabian side Al Fayha got only a second win of this campaign with a 3-1 home victory against Turkmenistan’s Ahal. Pakhtakor are second going into the final matchday, level on seven points with third-placed Fayha.
In the East Asian side of the draw, Japan’s Kawasaki Frontale made it five wins from five Group I matches to ease into the knockout stage, defeating Malaysia’s Johor Darul Ta’zim 5-0 at home.
South Korean side Ulsan Hyundai stay second following a 3-1 victory against BG Pathum United in Thailand. Both BG Pathum United and Johor Darul Ta’zim will exit the competition at the group stage.
In Group G, Chinese Super League club Shandong Taishan went top by dispatching the already-eliminated Kaya FC-Iloilo of the Philippines 6-1 in Jinan, while Yokohama F Marinos suffered a potentially damaging 2-1 loss against South Korea’s Incheon United.
Incheon and Yokohama each have nine points, with the Korean club second given their superior head-to-head record.
The group stage, which this year returned to a home-and-away format for the first time since early 2020, runs until mid-December, with the 10 pool winners and the six best second-placed teams advancing to the knockout rounds starting in February. The final takes place, across two legs, in May.


Ten Hag urges Man Utd to keep calm in Galatasaray cauldron

Ten Hag urges Man Utd to keep calm in Galatasaray cauldron
Updated 28 November 2023
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Ten Hag urges Man Utd to keep calm in Galatasaray cauldron

Ten Hag urges Man Utd to keep calm in Galatasaray cauldron
  • United are bottom of Group A and will be eliminated if they lose in Turkiye in their penultimate group fixture on Wednesday
  • Ten Hag insisted his men would travel with confidence despite their predicament and the hostile reception awaiting them in Istanbul

LONDON: Erik ten Hag has urged his Manchester United players to keep calm in the Galatasaray cauldron as they fight for their lives in the Champions League.
United are bottom of Group A and will be eliminated if they lose in Turkiye in their penultimate group fixture on Wednesday.
Even if they beat Galatasaray and defeat group winners Bayern Munich at Old Trafford in their final game, two wins for Copenhagen would send the Danish side through instead of Ten Hag’s team.
United, three-time European champions, have never won at Galatasaray — drawing twice and losing once.
They were famously greeted by Turkish fans in 1993 holding a banner that read “Welcome to Hell,” while others threw missiles and menacingly drew their fingers across their throats.
That game finished in a 0-0 draw, which sent United crashing out of Europe on the away goals rule after a 3-3 draw in the first leg.
Speaking at a pre-match press conference on Tuesday, Ten Hag insisted his men would travel with confidence despite their predicament and the hostile reception awaiting them in Istanbul.
“We know how to deal with it and I’m sure tomorrow it will be a confident team on the pitch,” said the Dutch manager.
“You have to stay calm in your head and don’t get too emotional. You need emotion but you have to control it. Don’t give them anything, or the referee as well.
“You have to stay away from such moments. We know how to deal with it. You have to play confident and you have to make it your game so it’s not that important how the opponent is playing, it’s important how we are playing.”
Ten Hag was asked what his plans were “to get out of hell.”
“We have to make it our game and it’s the history,” he said.
“Obviously Manchester United has a great history, but you can’t take any guarantee from it in the future, so we have to make our own future.
“It’s the past, so tomorrow, it’s about the future. It’s on us.”
The United boss said his side had improved since their shock 3-2 defeat to Galatasaray at Old Trafford early last month despite their inconsistent results.
They beat Everton 3-0 on Sunday to record their fifth Premier League win in six games.
“It’s good progress,” he said. “We are stepping up, we are more stable, we are winning games, so definitely there is a big difference from the first time we played them.”
United captain Bruno Fernandes said he was looking forward to playing in Galatasaray’s “intense” atmosphere.
“The atmosphere will be intense but I think everyone, as a kid, you enjoy and you want to be in these big stadiums with a big atmosphere so you just have to enjoy the challenge,” he said.
Well aware of the prestige that comes from playing in Europe’s elite club competition, Fernandes acknowledged the importance of United avoiding elimination on Wednesday.
“It’s really important to be in the competition, we want to be in the middle of the best clubs in Europe,” the Portugal midfielder said.
“It’s disappointing if we don’t go through but I’m not thinking about that at the moment.
“I’m just focused on the game against Galatasaray because the only way we can go through is winning against Galatasaray and going to the last game with a chance to go through.”
Rasmus Hojlund and Antony are in the squad after recovering from injuries, providing attacking options for a United side that will be without Marcus Rashford due to suspension.


Henry Onyekuru targeting Al-Fayha progress in ‘tight’ AFC Champions League group

Henry Onyekuru targeting Al-Fayha progress in ‘tight’ AFC Champions League group
Updated 28 November 2023
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Henry Onyekuru targeting Al-Fayha progress in ‘tight’ AFC Champions League group

Henry Onyekuru targeting Al-Fayha progress in ‘tight’ AFC Champions League group
  • From Aspire Academy, UEFA Champions League football with Anderlecht, Nigerian flourishing in new Saudi home

RIYADH: It has been a challenging AFC Champions League debut for Al-Fayha. The 2022 King’s Cup winners, who beat Al-Hilal on penalties to lift their first ever major trophy 18 months ago, have lost three of their first four games and face a must-win clash with Turkmenistan’s Ahal in Riyadh on Tuesday.

Realistically, Al-Fayha need to beat both Ahal and reigning Uzbekistan champions Pakhtakor to stand a chance of qualifying for the knockout stage.

Aiming to help them advance is Nigeria forward Henry Onyekuru, who has impressed for Vuk Rasovic’s side since arriving from Turkish club Adana Demirspor in August.

Onyekuru told Arab News: “It’s a little tight for us, we know, but we know we need to just win on Tuesday, that is the most important thing. Then we will have to wait for the other results to see, and yes, we might have a lesser chance, but it can happen. This is football and of course we hope we can play in the next round.”

The 26-year-old has plenty of experience of elite-level continental competition to call upon, having played every game of Anderlecht’s 2017 to 2018 UEFA Champions League campaign in a tough group that included PSG, Bayern Munich, and Celtic. The fleet-footed player also featured in several games for Galatasaray in the competition.

He is not alone at Al-Fayha, with teammates Fashion Sakala and Anthony Nwakaeme having represented Rangers in the Champions League and Trabzonspor in the Europa League, respectively. The three African players have forged a valuable friendship at Al-Fayha and Onyekuru has been happy to have them alongside him.

He said: “It is always a little bit difficult at the beginning when you move to a new country, but they helped me adapt very fast.

“We have really bonded and apart from football, they are such great guys. They are there for me on the pitch and outside it,” he added.

Al-Fayha go into their crunch AFC Champions League encounter after a morale-boosting 1-0 Saudi Pro League victory over Al-Fateh but it has been a frustrating season for Onyekuru and his teammates, who have a league-high seven draws so far. While there were positive ties with Al-Hilal and Al-Ittihad, there have also been many opportunities missed.

Onyekuru said: “We threw a lot of points away, games we should have won, but we ended up drawing 0-0 or 1-1. We feel good as a team so it hasn’t been easy but there is a lot of the season left so I think we can definitely climb higher.

“Our coach is the kind of guy who really understands his players — he knows when you’re tired, he knows when you’re worried, and he’s open with everybody, which is very important. He is always very clear — if you work, you play; if you don’t work, you don’t play.

“I think we’re on a good track at this moment; we just have to keep working and the results will start coming.

“This is a very tough league now and it has surprised me how good it has been. There has been a big increase in quality, and you see that every team has better players who can make a difference. It will only get better, and it is great to be a part of Saudi football right now,” he added.

Onyekuru’s move to Al-Fayha has been a return to the Gulf of sorts. As a teenager, he was selected for the Aspire Academy’s Football Dreams initiative, an African talent identification process that saw him make it through a series of trials to be one of just three Nigerians selected.

“I feel lucky to have been among these players. It was a five-year scholarship of football and school. We travelled to play the Barcelona and Real Madrid youth teams and many others in tournaments — it was a great experience,” he said.

Onyekuru travelled regularly to the Aspire Academy in Qatar and represented the institution in competitions around the world before signing for their pathway club Eupen in the Belgian Second Division.

“When I got there, it was really difficult for me because I arrived in winter, and it was very cold in Belgium. We were down the bottom of the league and we only just avoided relegation.

“But the next season was great. The coach Jordi Condom was the first to move me from a No. 9 to the wing – the team played well, and we were promoted.”

Onyekuru’s performances led to interest from Arsenal, the club at which his childhood hero Nwankwo Kanu made his name, though the young winger eventually signed for Everton. Hampered by visa issues, he failed to make a Premier League appearance for the Toffees, though impressed on loan at Anderlecht and Galatasaray before moving on to Monaco.

“I remember very well I spoke to Arsene Wenger, and my dream was to play Premier League. I always wanted to be there. Eupen were also talking to PSG because of the Qatar connection but then they wanted to focus on (Kylian) Mbappe.

“I spoke to some people like (ex-Inter Milan and Nigeria striker) Obafemi Martins and decided in the end on Everton. It was a shame that things didn’t work out because I hadn’t played enough games for Nigeria,” he added.

While Onyekuru’s move to Saudi Arabia has generally been a positive experience, it has been tempered by him falling out of favor with the Nigeria national team.

Onyekuru, whose mother named him after 1980 Africa Cup of Nations-winning player Henry Nwosu, noted that the SPL deserved to be more respected by those selecting the squad. He hoped that he may still be able to represent the Super Eagles at the 2023 Africa Cup of Nations in Ivory Coast.

He said: “I was there at the last AFCON in Cameroon, and I am really pushing to be there again. In Nigerian football there is still this negative mentality about the Saudi league – they don’t think it is as intense.

“But I think they should be able to see that now, the players who play here make it competitive. I am not giving up and anything can happen.”


Athletic draw prevents Girona from returning to top spot in La Liga

Athletic draw prevents Girona from returning to top spot in La Liga
Updated 28 November 2023
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Athletic draw prevents Girona from returning to top spot in La Liga

Athletic draw prevents Girona from returning to top spot in La Liga
  • Girona trail league leaders Real Madrid on goal difference after dropping points for just the third time this season, while Athletic climbed to fifth spot
  • Williams, who started on the opposite wing from his brother Nico, equalized from a counter-attacking move that started in Athletic’s own box

MADRID: Surprise package Girona failed to return to the top of La Liga on Monday after they were held to a 1-1 draw at home by Athletic Bilbao.

Winger Viktor Tsygankov put the hosts ahead 10 minutes after half time but Inaki Williams scored 12 minutes later to claim a point for the away side.

Girona trail league leaders Real Madrid on goal difference after dropping points for just the third time this season, while Athletic climbed to fifth spot.

Athletic had the better of the first half and their best chance fell to Gorka Guruzeta but the striker poked his shot straight at Girona goalkeeper Paulo Gazzaniga.

Girona had early chances of their own including an Aleix Garcia volley, which he skied over the crossbar, but did not find the rhythm they have found so often this season.

After the break, the hosts broke the deadlock when Tsygankov rifled home.

Williams, who started on the opposite wing from his brother Nico, equalized from a counter-attacking move that started in Athletic’s own box.

The wide man finished smoothly for his sixth league goal of the season as the Basques went looking for their third straight win.

With 10 minutes left Inaki Williams came close to finding the winner as he cut in from the left but his shot was parried by Gazzaniga.

Inaki Williams was replaced in the final minute of normal time for youngster Adu Ares, but both sides were forced to settle for a point.

On Sunday, Rodrygo sent Real Madrid top with a double in 3-0 win at Cadiz.

Carlo Ancelotti’s Madrid are four points clear of fourth-placed Barcelona, who drew 1-1 at Rayo Vallecano on Saturday.